Carlsbad Caverns (Carlsbad, NM)

On our last day in Carlsbad, we headed back to Carlsbad Caverns to venture into the caverns instead of just hiking in the Chihuahua Desert up above like our Rattlesnake Canyon hike the day before. If you haven’t been, here’s what you’re missing.

The Natural Entrance

We were advised to take The Natural Entrance (see picture above), rather than the elevator, to truly get the perspective of the size and depth of the caverns. So true! Hopping on an elevator and descending 750 feet in under a minute can’t give you the same perspective that descending 750 feet through 1.25 miles of paved switchbacks down the gaping maw of a giant hole in the earth.

A Note From Scott:
Always up for a challenge, I decided to walk back up the Natural Entrance. I kind of challenged myself to see how fast I could do it without actually running up (which probably would’ve killed me). The park estimates that it’ll take 1-2 hours. I managed a good pace and went from the elevator room to the top of the Bat Flight Amphitheater outside the cave in 22 minutes. Most anyone in reasonable shape would knock this out far quicker than the park’s estimate, no problem.

Three tips for your ascent:

  • Pace Yourself: Don’t start off running or you probably won’t make it.
  • Take Advantage Of Flats & Downhills: This hike will wake your hamstrings up. There are a few flat and downhill spots for you to recover those legs on the way up.
  • Save A Little: Save some energy for the final part of the ascent out of the mouth of the cave. There are a couple of very steep spots on the last little bit.

A Note From Edie:
Eager to get back to my puppy, I took the elevator. Here are a few interesting stats on the lift:

  • The elevator covers 750 feet in 58 seconds. For reference, 750 feet is between 60 and 75 stories of a building.
  • Blasting the shaft took 6 months and no formations were harmed.
  • Most of the debris was used within the cavern for items like paved walkways.

Even if you’re not up for the climb out of the hole, take The Natural Entrance in if you’re of able body to do so. Going down is harder on the knees. Coming up is harder on everything else.

The Big Room

Included with your $6 per person general admission ticket is The Big Room, the room that made Carlsbad Cavern famous. At one time, it was the single largest underground chamber in the world. It no longer is, but it’s still enormous! The total floor space is a little over 8 acres.

Within those 8 acres are some of the best features within the caverns, so you don’t have to take a guided tour to see some of the best parts of Carlsbad Caverns. On the list of what you’ll see in Big Room are The Bottomless Pit (sorry, it’s not really bottomless), Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and The Chinese Theater. If you take the time to come to Carlsbad, whether you take a tour or not, spend the hour or so to walk the mile of pathways through Big Room.

Much like looking at clouds, you can find images in the cave formations. A high school boy would have a field day in here finding symbology, but of course, we’d never be that crass and immature. At least on our blog.

The King’s Palace

We took the King’s Palace guided tour, which is $8 each and worth every penny. From the starting point of 750 feet below the surface, we descended another 80 feet to 830 feet deep. The main chamber of The King’s Palace was actually used to create the photographs that finally got the public interested in visiting the cave.

There are tons of stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, and draperies through the tour. Our guide, Ranger Annie, did a great job of explaining the formation of these decorations and the history of the cave’s exploration.

The main chamber is really neat. The Queen’s Draperies are incredible. But the coolest part might have been the true “this is what a cave is like” experience when she shut off all of the lights and let us experience true blackness. No matter how long you sit there, your eyes won’t adjust because there’s no light whatsoever. She had us all be quiet; between the blackness and the dead silence (except for a solo water drip from a stalactite) was unreal. Us city folk aren’t used to that kind of thing.

Early Exploration

So here’s your brief history lesson. In 1898, 16 year old Jim White discovered Carlsbad Caverns. And from there, he started exploring the cavern, discovering much of what we know about the caves today. At 16! Most 16 year olds today are wondering who they’re going to the Homecoming dance with, not deciding to venture off into “a darkness so absolutely black it seemed a solid.”

One of the ways early explorers marked their return trail so they could actually get out of what would essentially be a very dark and quiet prison should you get trapped down there was with burn marks on the walls from their lanterns. Ranger Annie said something to the effect of:

We consider these smudge marks to be historical graffiti because they are over 50 years old. Should you decide to do something similar, we consider that a Federal offense.

Shifting Thinking

It’s almost mind-blowing to think of the timeline of hundreds of thousands of years for some of the decorations to form and up to 6 million years for the overall cave formation, which of course continues today. We think in terms of human lifespans of 75-100 years. Some “newly formed” stalactites in a passageway blasted out by the Park Service are about 80 years old…and no more than an inch long. To think of how long some of the giant decorations (10, 20, 50, even 100s of feet tall) have been forming is mind-boggling.

The Fine Line

Another interesting thing is the fine line that’s walked between allowing people access to see this marvelous place while also acknowledging the damage we cause by being there and working to minimize that damage. Aside from the obvious damage that can be caused, like people breaking off decorations and taking them home (it might have taken 100,000 years for that stalactite to form, but only 3 seconds to break it off), human presence has a few other effects.

Annie told us about the shift to LED lighting in the chambers. The fluorescent lights currently in use allow algae, a non-native cave species, to flourish because they provide the necessities for the photosynthesis the algae needs, making algae clean-up a constant issue. With the move to LED lights, the algae will lose their ability to photosynthesize.

Another problem is the lint that we naturally shed from our clothes, along with skin cells and dead hair. We actually saw a ranger cleaning up lint with a pair of tweezers and a baggie. A tedious, but valuable, task to say the least. We also bring in non-native bacteria with us. In fact, if you’ve been in any other cave in the last 7 years, they ask that you not wear any of the same clothes because there’s a disease that affects bats that hasn’t hit Carlsbad Caverns.

The Bat Flight

Unfortunately, because it’s February, we were unable to see the nightly bat flight when thousands and thousands of Mexican Free-tailed Bats fly out of the mouth of the cavern in search of food. If you’re there in summer time, go see it. It’s supposed to be quite the spectacle.

Kennel Services

One final note on Carlsbad Caverns. They offer a great service: kennels for your dog for only $6. There’s actually a sign in the parking lot that leaving pets in cars is prohibited, though a sign on the kennel door said “Today’s temperature will be below 70. Kenneling your pet isn’t mandatory.”

We opted to put Knox in the kennel anyway, as planned, instead of leaving him by himself in the truck for the 4-5 hours we’d be down in the cave.

Now, let’s be real, these aren’t big pens. It’s not doggy daycare with long runs and playtime. It’s just a crate like you’d use for crate training your dog, but at least Fido isn’t stuck in the car without water and the hot desert sun beating down warming the car up. Even with the 70-degree temperature on the day we went, the truck was quite warm.

Dress Appropriately

You’ll be over 750 feet underground where the temperature is a constant 56ish degrees. Even in the summertime, it’s going to be cool. Also, no sandals. Wear something with some traction because parts of the floor can be slick from dripping water.

Pictures

You probably skipped all of that nonsense I said above and just skipped straight to the pictures, so here you go! We’ve mentioned before how a camera can’t possibly capture a landscape. This holds even more in the caves.